Albert Reacts Again

I continue to mainly wonder what you see as the deep benefits of peer production for people’s options at work or more generally as well as for production results. That list is needed, it seems to me, so we can assess whether the benefits you see in p2p are generalizable and what would be necessary to attain them, at least as much as possible, in all domains rather than settling with attaining them in a relatively narrow domain and only for a special sector of actors. Indeed, insofar as I understand the benefits, I think parecon does generalize them and deliver them to all, but that’s another matter. First, what are the benefits?

For example, you say about peer production that "it is easiest to implement and practice in conditions where the costs of reproduction are marginal."

Well, if you would say what the benefits of p2p are, perhaps we could envision means to attain them even when costs of production are high. Why rule it out?

You say, "it is very important that there is no a priori filtering, i.e. that you do not have to ask permission to add your contribution."

This I don’t understand. Why is it a virtue, even, much less a condition? I don’t think you believe in "anything goes," which is that everyone should just be welcome to do anything they want in general. What you are saying seems to be that in a domain where it costs nearly nothing to do what you want, and where people can take the output or leave it, there is no harm in doing what you want, and no one will interfere. Well sure – but so what? It seems to me to be a condition without foundation other than avoiding obstacles… unless you think some of the virtues you see in p2p can only exist where we have costless production. But if so, what are those benefits, since I am guessing if we specify them they can be had for all, in all production?
You say, "In most newspapers for example, you can only write if your editor has asked you to do so, and if he then also accepts your article."

Not exactly, often you can write, and then submit, and then get accepted or rejected. But now suppose it is not "an editor" acting from on high, but a self managing collectively engaged process which every participant believes is in accord with the mandate of the operation – the quality, aims, and so on – that decides what is published and what isn’t. Why should having collectively agreed and overseen standards and shared agenda preclude an operation getting wonderful benefits? You might say it is harder in that case than when there is costless production – but I don’t understand ruling it out in that case, pretty much by definition. Do you think it is bad that, say, there are operations that publish what they feel is worthy and not what they don’t? I assume you don’t feel that, so you aren’t saying that in the end all constraints and coordination disappear.

When you say, "By contrast, in peer-produced citizen journalism, would accept your contributions, and would filter for excellence and quality ‘a posteriori’ after the fact," again, I don’t quite get how this is actually permissionless, nor do I see what the gain is. If I submit a proposal to a newspaper and they nominally accept it as something to try, because that’s the rule – it seems to me that if they know when I make the suggestion that it won’t fly I am wasting my time pursuing it – and then when they don’t print it, that seems to me to be not accepting it.

In short, work is sometimes agreed as worthy or not in advance, yes. And sometimes, it is done only after the fact. What is fundamentally different about these two situations, I wonder, and what is the virtue or benefit of the second compared to the first? What really do you think is different and why do you care about it? More, of course there are differences in different types of production that in turn yield different processes, experiences, etc. But I would think we should try to capture the benefits that we seek in some processes, perhaps attainable more easily in them – to the extent possible – in all processes. So if the technical conditions of certain types of immaterial production have revealed certain benefits from different approaches, why not enumerate them, discern their meaning and worth, and then see if those benefits can be accomplished more generally? Shouldn’t that be a paramount priority for p2p, no?

And suppose I am right that parecon would achieve the p2p benefits, and more, for everyone. If that was true, shouldn’t advocates of p2p celebrate it? What would it say if instead advocates of p2p said, well, okay, maybe parecon would deliver the benefits to all, but we are nonetheless going to focus only on the realm that is easier and that benefits us? Let me put this a different way. Why settle for trying to attain changes only in limited domains, which is not to say those domains shouldn’t be targetted, of course.

When you say "the overwhelming majority of NGO’s for example, would not allow this permissionless production of content," I think we should clarify and not for NGOs only, but for all firms.

So, I think instead that if, as you posit, there is no production cost – which is to say there is really no loss due to some people working on something they want to do even if others think it is unwise – then no firm would rule it out in advance. If people working at an NGO or at an automobile multinational, for that matter, said, hey I want to volunteer to try such and such a project. I will do the work in my own home, on my own time, using nothing that the firm pays for and only things I pay for, thereby detracting zero time from the firm’s agenda, etc., to see if what I generate has enough quality and merit to become a firm product, and then if it looks like it would, I will turn it over. No firm would say no, don’t try. The reason the NGO would most often say no to what you suggest is instead that in fact what you have in mind would utilize NGO capacity for a task that the NGO – via its decision making procedures – thought unwise. Capacity would be used inadvisably and be unavailable for other pursuits. Assuming a firm’s decision procedures are true to shared values that all the participants aspire to, are self managing, etc., what is wrong with the firm saying no to certain pursuits and yes to others?

It seems to me that p2p either desires as a virtue that people can do whatever they wish, period – an utterly impossible picture not only due to scarcity of time, materials, etc., but also since I can want something that contradicts what you want and vice versa – or that p2p desires that people have appropriate say in the decisions affecting them. If the first is p2p’s desire, I agree that it will typically only be even nearly possible (and not always then) in production situations that are virtually costless. But I also think it is an odd aim, at best, and an anti social aim, at worst. So if that is p2p’s desire, what am I missing?

On the other hand, if p2p is seeking self management rather than seeking "anything goes," then to say it can only happen in costless production is to my mind incredibly pessimistic. It says the only place we can have even elements of what we desire is where doing so actually benefits elites. Please don’t take this wrong, but it is a bit like saying we can have free communication and travel and speech etc., in the master’s house, but not in the plantation fields – we can have it in the board room, but not in the assembly room.

You say that with p2p (1) anyone can participate, (2) the process of filtering for desirability is participatory and only a posteriori, and (3) the result is made available to all without exception, and that those three conditions are essential, as well.
Okay, I still don’t get it, so let me be more blunt. I think the first condition is paternalistic, at best, and also false. It is false because not everyone can participate, but only folks with requisite access to independent income, time, relevant skills, etc. It is paternalistic because even for those who meet those standards, saying anyone can participate in something that costs nothing – but then of course permitting and even requiring rejecting diverse contributions later due to not meeting standards or needs – is simply posturing. There is exclusion by standards and needs, whether it is done before or after the fact (the latter potentially causing people to waste their time). But, what is more, saying that anyone can participate as a condition implies that there is some wisdom, rather than incoherence, in the idea that there should be open participation in each and every production project.

The second condition, that filtering for worth occurs only after the production, again depends entirely on costlessness – and even then, honestly, makes little sense to me for the reasons noted above. If you and I are engaged in a project and I say I am going to do x, and you know x is a waste of time, it is not helpful to not tell me that. Sometimes, even in nearly costless situations – and there is no such thing as entirely costless – it is nonsensical to have no prior attention to merit. But mainly, this again depends entirely on fictitious costlessness. So, in fact, what is being sought here – and maybe we can achieve it more generally with different social relations rather than essentially accepting social relations as they are and achieving it only in the very odd case of costless production (which never actually exists). Further, my guess is that for a great many p2p producers their judgement that it is worth their time to produce does in fact involve assessing the cost to them of allotting the time, which is never zero. I suspect what they weigh against that cost is their desire to use their talents, their desire to benefit recipients of the product, and the effects of contributing on their reputation, and not least, thereby, on their ability to attract income.

Finally, as a third condition, saying that the result has to be available for all is perhaps the most strange feature. Of course a product being free, or nearly free, is beneficial when it makes sense. But what about when it doesn’t? So why is this a condition, other than the general desire to have rational and worthy allocation?
When I say, "if some group produces outputs that require inputs, it would have to get the inputs. It would have to get the labor. People could say no. Permissions, and perhaps acquisitions, are involved. More, peer to peer seems to be only about undertaking joint ventures that have no significant costs. Is that right?" You answer, "The input must indeed be open and free, and obviously, this works only where communication, coordination, and reproduction costs are marginal, i.e. in the world of immaterial production."

But I am not asking you to repeat the "rules of the club" that takes the name p2p. I am asking you to clarify why those are the rules. As best I can understand, it is because you and p2p advocates believe that with these rules the little community can grow a lot, and spread – and avoid conflict – and you want that. Okay, but why? If it is to usher in new social relations throughout the economy, then at some point you must address, clearly, the fact that production is never costless, not least due to the value of the time of the participants. So why not situate p2p in context of broader aims right off?

You say that I should note that "everything that needs to be physically produced, and therefore needs cost-recovery mechanisms, has a design phase. That design phase is ‘immaterial’ (in the sense we understand it), and therefore, can be peer produced."

In fact, however, doesn’t most design involve training, time, tools, testing, etc.? More, even if in some cases design was without costs for material inputs, why should the work of design go unremunerated? Why do you feel that in order to achieve a degree of self management, one ought to accept no income? Why not instead demand equitable income and also self management?

I am beginning to fear that p2p while being progressive in many inclinations, is socially very defeatist – deciding that the best that can be had in the way of self management is for a small number of elite actors who can have a nice income by some separate non p2p means – and who then want, as well, to do some additional creative self managed work and who don’t care about getting income for it, and who also will have no expenses or don’t care about covering the expenses, to do so in a p2p operation. Why not instead say, okay, we can easily pursue self management in such cases (and whatever other virtues you have in mind), but of course we ultimately want these general virtues not only in volunteer work but in all work, and not only for ourselves but for everyone. That would be exemplary.

When you say, "it becomes easy to imagine, and this is already practiced, to combine an open design process, with a different mechanism for physical production." Why is it good that private firms appropriate profits based on designs, and, more, the designers get no income at all for doing the designs? Why shouldn’t the design work be remunerated, the benefits be social, the decisions be self managed, in all parts of the process?

When you continue, "You therefore could combine this ‘peer to peer’ … in the design phase, with say, a cooperative, for the production phase," it makes me nervous. (a) Where do the designers get income? (b) How do they regard typical workers who are subordinate, low income, etc.? Why isn’t this whole thing, if it is posed without broader aims, just an example of an elite deciding it wants some different types of benefit that it can afford to pursue while respecting broader social relations that crush other people?

In answering my question as to what are the virtues that peer to peer is trying to capture, you say… "Such production, because it relies on the most creative non-coerced intrinsic motivation, leads to hyperproductivity, and a striving for absolute quality, which can not be matched by purely commercial players relying on closed intellectual property."

But in fact, that is just saying – to the extent it is true – that p2p production, at the cost of the workers not getting income for it and shouldering all costs associated with it, can better tap talent, energy, etc. I agree. But so can pareconish production relations, for example, and without the sacrifices and for everyone. So why not see p2p as heading toward parecon, experimenting in areas where it is easy to implement variations on some aspects in certain ways?

When you say "Most of the time, because of the issue you correctly described above, i.e. the different logics applying to immaterial vs. material production, a hybrid and cooperative logic emerges combining the open design communities, a nonprofit (‘for-benefit’) managing the infrastructure of cooperation, and a ecology of businesses producing scarce added value for the market," what I hear is that capitalists continue to gain profit from labor, but at least a few folks escape before the fact oversight by capitalists. This is not a very major social gain, it seems to me, put that way.

You note as well, that p2p removes copyrights, secrecy, etc., and these are virtues, I quite agree, but they are generalizable – for example, parecon does this for all affairs in and aspects of the economy. Now I very much agree that if p2p can push hard toward design and definition being freely available it has profound implications for social relations – think of the pharmaceutical industry, for example – but the fact is it is not going to accomplish that without massive pressure and struggle – and it is not going to generate that without having huge popular support, which in turn means it has to be part of a process that addresses much wider needs than merely those of programmers, designers, etc. When you say p2p can, however, demonstrate the virtues of certain aspects of good economic relations, again, I quite agree, but think it is important only and overwhelmingly insofar as p2p is pushing toward establishing those relations more broadly.
In short, when you say "peer production only works for immaterial production, but can be associated with physical production," I think it is because of the definition you have for it, not because we can only get the benefits you like in p2p in one type context. The real benefits, it seems to me, are collective self management, equity, open information, removal of external profit pressures, and sensible distribution, but these are attainable in all types of production, not in only one type, and without foregoing income, also, as described, for example, in parecon. 

When you say, "Ideally, peer communities are strong enough to work with businesses that are closer in ethical values and practices. This is already happening in the existing hybrid practices. They can also create their own, such as for example coops, or parecon-inspired businesses.," I reply great. This is the version of p2p which says we are experimenting in the domains we can with new ways of organizing work, assessing it, communicating about it, sharing its benefits – and we want the benefits that we discover to in time generalize to other domains as well, so we will work as best we can with firms which are trying to incorporate the benefits and we will help actors in other firms demand those benefits, too. But then the list of benefits should not include permissionless activity and not being remunerated, or even products being free, for that matter, though the last certainly makes sense sometimes and no copyrights, etc., always makes sense.

When you say, "for peer to peer to expand to all types of production, we need to solve the issue of cost recovery for physical production" what you are really saying, I think, is we need to solve the problem of allocating labor and materials among possible projects in ways consistent with our values – and I agree. And I also offer participatory planning as an option. When you say that "this may either never be fully attained, or may require a long transitional period," I reply, maybe it will take a long time, or maybe not, but it isn’t too relevant. What is relevant is, are there choices we can make now that speed up the process, and other choices we should avoid that would slow it down, and are we willing to make the former choices rather than the latter?

When you instead say, "the best option therefore is to think of peer to peer in terms of a pluralist economy," I simply don’t understand why. If p2p advocates said they want various benefits – such as self management, solidarity, etc., for every producer in the economy – and they see p2p as establishing experiments and projects that are temporarily operating only in narrow areas of costless production, but that mean to later diversify more broadly – why would that be bad? Why wouldn’t it be inspiring? Wouldn’t it create the possibility of generalized social involvement for p2p advocates, rather than aloofness from all but their own circumstances?

The only argument I can see so far against p2p as part of a larger social project, is either that p2p advocates see themselves as special and able to benefit (due mainly to having independent ample income) while others continue to go without those benefits because in the eyes of the p2p folks, they aren’t good enough, or don’t merit it, etc., or, instead, p2p feels that the reality is that owners are too powerful to cross in any degree, so p2p advocates should keep quiet about or sublimate or even eliminate broader desires so they can get what is actually now readily available. I think both sentiments are unworthy – though I am quick to say I may be missing a different explanation – and thus I ask what it may be.

You say, "If income is conditional on production, it’s not peer to peer, even if the result is freely available." This isn’t because you think there is something wrong with income that is in part based on production – let’s say, in the pareconish view, based on duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor – since, after all, you are fine with p2p workers getting income outside p2p projects. It is because, it seems, you think you can’t have self management and other benefits if you are working for a boss. Well, okay – I agree – but then do you really want to propose that the only people who can have a degree of self management, etc., are those who get income in other ways, and do the self managed activity without pay and shouldering costs?

When you say "In a capitalist context … workers are never really free in terms of work contracts, since they cannot survive without one," there is an odd flavor to it. What is wrong with capitalism is not that people get back from the social product due in part to their work – but that the norm that is utilized to govern how much people get is immoral and the work is controlled, motivated, and allocated to profit a few. All this certainly needs to change – of course – and one can win reforms, or create new firms, that change parts of the current system, even as we move toward changing it all.

Let me summarize: You seem to be saying something like this…at least as I am hearing it. P2p is groups of volunteers, who get their income by other routes, working together in projects, being free to participate without permission but with their work later assessed for merit, working without pay, shouldering whatever costs arise, offering the results free to anyone who wishes to use them – including software code, engineering designs, etc. My problem is why pursue something that has merit only for an elite that is already well off, turning away from addressing the broader society and economy, and using formulations which tend to enshrine false aims, as well? Pursue it, yes, but in a more socially connected fashion.
When you personally say, "I absolutely agree with you that we should extend the virtues of openness, freedom, participation, the common good, equality etc. The question is how that can be done." I reply, indeed. And I hope you will take a serious look at the features of parecon as a possible answer.

When you add that your personal "expectation is that the peer to peer movements will naturally evolve from transgressive behavior (say filesharing), to constructive behavior (say the General Public License), to practices which challenge the existing institutional setup and political economy," I say, great, okay, then let’s have parecon and p2p work together toward broad social programmatic campaigns that both can support.
I wrote "When you say societal change requires at least `a sizeable section of the former ruling structure morphing to the new mode’ I think it is an understatement, and yet it also concerns me. All of the old rulers exist in the new system, and thus must by definition morph into operating in light of the new system’s norms and structures. This is a truism, no? But when you say it is happening with peer to peer now, I have concerns about that – because the old elite’s motives remain capitalist and govern their willingness to exploit peer to peer."
You replied: "I understand the concern, but that is the reality of a class society, that different social groups protect their interest first."

Are you saying that the p2p group is engaging in narrow self interested behavior – really coordinator class behavior – and we should expect that? Well, yes, we should anticipate that some will do that, of course, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to alter it, broaden it, enrich it? More, it doesn’t require the p2p cater to the agendas of corporate power, either.

When you write "So, as peer producing communities seek to extend their sustainability and possibilities, so capital seeks to profit from it. The historical precedents show us that the old order first seeks to use the new mode to bolster its own logic, infrastructure and institutions, while being in the end overcome by it." Fair enough – but what you seem to be saying is that p2p should conceive itself in light of the desire of capital to profit from it – instead of in light of a set of overarching values and aims of its own. That is my problem. It seems to me the definition of p2p is limited and narrow to be as much compatible with corporate agendas as possible – and I fear the dynamic will be hard to escape.

You say, "Peer production is hyperproductive not just in terms of production, but politically in terms of participation and democracy, and the universal availability of its production as well." I agree on the last point – when it fights to eliminate copyrights, etc. But not on the rest – to set up a framework in which you can only work if you have independent income is not increasing participation, and I haven’t heard anything bearing on democracy.

When you say "You and I may find capitalism to be ‘horrendously horrible’ (I actually would have to qualify that statement, but let’s pass it for this time), but most people in the world disagree, and two hundred years of rhetoric and social struggle haven’t abolished it."

I am not at all sure most people disagree about capitalism being horrific – I rather doubt it, in fact. Imagine an all powerful God comes to earth and says, I will ordain capitalism as forever, or I will oversee a massive discussion of what should replace it, and when populations settle the latter question, I will ensure that it happens. My guess is a minuscule proportion of humanity would opt for maintaining capitalism. The key thing freeing the critical faculties would beg the confidence that God forcing the outcome would engender about the importance of deciding a real vision.

You are right capitalism hasn’t been eliminated, but wrong that that is evidence it can’t be. Once upon a time someone could have said that about slavery, or fuedalism, and so on, they had not yet been replaced…which didn’t mean the system was forever. Pharonic Egyptian social relations persisted for about 5,000 years, I believe – but it wasn’t alone possible, nor was resistance irrational.

When you say "I also do not believe classlessness is a realistic possibility in conditions of objective or perceived scarcity" fair enough, but to discuss it, you would need to say why. What is it about the fact that there is not unlimited time, skills, knowledge, material, energy, etc., that somehow makes a division of society into contending classes inevitable? Nothing – is my answer, but I can’t react to whatever your answer might be, to whatever makes you pessimistic about classlessness, unless you offer it.

When you say, "So my view is: as we are seeing post-capitalist processes emerging, how do we extend them as much as we can." I agree. But extend them where, and for whom, and by what means which will facilitate continued expansion?

You add, "I’m not interested one bit in anti-capitalist rhetoric, only in actions which allow us to go beyond commodity production. For that, we strengthen our peer producing communities, build our institutions, do what we can to promote distributed infrastructures in every area we can, and create a social movement which can successfully defend our practices, and hopefully one day, remove constraining institutions."

Saying you aren’t interested in anti capitalist rhetoric seems contentless to me. You are against copyrights, for example, that is incredibly contrary to capitalism. If you mean only you are not interested in silly posturing, we agree. My worry about p2p is that it is may become so insulated from and perhaps even disdainful of those who aren’t part of it, who don’t have sufficient income and training to participate, and is so respectful of owners, that it risks losing its limited progressive inclinations, rather than expanding them.
I wrote: "I am afraid that even you are ignoring key aspects of economic life – remuneration, decision making structures, division of labor, and allocation – none of which peer to peer as yet addresses – when you say it provides a template for a better future."

You replied, "I’m not ignoring them at all. Within its sphere of success, peer production has actually successfully addressed decision-making structures (peer governance), replaced the division of labour, by distribution of labour, and hierarchical/market allocation by self-aggregation of productive resources."

Again, to confine the locus of a movement to a very narrow sphere and then accomplish something inside it is perhaps nice, but could be much nicer by situating it more broadly. But more, what is peer governance? Is it self management, or something else? If you say that by eliminating permission and avoiding decisions you are dealing with decision making, I have to tell you, my reply is that that is absurd. It is sort of like someone saying they are going to get rid of exploitation by having no economy, or get rid of authoritarianism by having no polity. On the other hand if you say that p2p has some norms about how groups of workers should arrive at decisions, called peer governance, then I would like very much to know what those norms are, and if they are in development, no problem, what are they so far and where do they seem to be headed?

And how have you replaced the division of labor? Who cleans the building p2p workers operate in? Who produces their computers and other inputs? And do they care? P2p is no more challenging the division of labor by having engineers and programmers work in their homes than owners are challenging it by having partners and lawyers do so, or even piece workers, for that matter, at the other end of the scale. If there is a real change, okay, how does p2p say a group of workers should allot tasks among themselves? And while I agree that eliminating copyrights, etc., is very good – it is far from addressing allocation more broadly.
When I asked: "When you say `peer production is therefore a great opportunity for workers, to create strong commons, and demand adaptations from their corporate partners, while nothing stops them from creating their own productive structures, such as parecon based cooperatives’ it is of course in accord with the scenario one noted above, but wouldn’t it be more compelling if all peer to peer practitioners and advocates generally agreed about this, and thus were continually trying to enrich peer to peer rhetoric and practice with insights from broader social vision? Do they?"
You replied, "No, they do not, I wish they did. And I’m working on it. Can you do more?" Are you asking, can I do more regarding p2p advocates moving toward a more socially committed stance? I don’t know. Obviously I am not part of the community. But I would happily try, given the opportunity.

Leave a comment